Fearing journalism’s nuclear meltdown

By Lyle V. Harris

You probably wouldn’t know it from checking our local media outlets, but Georgia Power, the state’s largest electric utility, is at the center of one of the biggest consumer shakedowns in state history – and there could be more bad news on the way.

The scantly reported story about the failing and costly construction of two nuclear reactor units at Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro, Ga. is, at first blush, a textbook example of crony capitalism.

Upon closer scrutiny, it’s also a timely reminder that local journalism – from independent blogs such as the SaportaReport and others – is more important now than ever.

Exactly eight years ago this month, I wrote a column for an online news service I co-founded called GONSO. Our goal was to disrupt the “dead tree” media that was hemorrhaging money and falling out of fashion with consumers who were relying instead on internet sources for their news and information – a trend that’s still playing out today.

Georgia Online News Service Logo

Bristling with great intentions but inadequate funding, GONSO came and went with barely a whimper (may she rest in peace). But back then, when we were still full of piss and vinegar, I started my column with these words:

“There’s no longer any doubt about who’s really running the state of Georgia. It isn’t the Governor. It isn’t the General Assembly. It’s Georgia Power.”

In 2009, you see, Georgia Power had a bright idea, at least for their shareholders. The company convinced state lawmakers and then-Gov. Sonny Perdue (and presumptive U.S. Secretary of Agriculture) that customers should pay in advance for future nuclear plant construction, long before such facilities had begun generating electricity.

Along with a consortium of smaller electric utilities with a stake in the project, Georgia Power had been working since 2006 to build the new reactors at the existing Plant Vogtle site located along the Savannah River. Once completed, they promised, the new reactor units would expand the capacity of the plant’s two, existing reactors that had been completed decades earlier.

But Georgia Power and its partners were determined to hedge their bets, albeit using other people’s money. And with good reason.

The original construction at Plant Vogtle about 30 years ago was a disaster. The project was completed a decade behind schedule and wound up costing 10 times more than Georgia Power had projected. The situation was so dire that the company almost went bankrupt.

At that time, Georgia Power was only allowed to charge customers for nuclear construction costs after the reactors started generating electricity.

To avoid repeating that scenario, Georgia Power’s army of lobbyists persuaded compliant lawmakers to enshrine their outrageous scheme in state law. They claimed that charging customers for construction costs years in advance would actually save them money in the long run.

Since then, customers have been shelling out their hard-earned money for the nuclear build-out, but with none of the benefits. At last count, customers were paying an additional $100 a year on their energy bills to finance the Plant Vogtle construction.

But the latest estimate is that customers could wind up paying about $6 billion in construction costs spread over the next 60 years.

With a blank check in hand and a wink-wink from the Legislature and so-called regulators at the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC), it should come as no surprise that the construction at Plant Vogtle is now about three years behind schedule and a whopping $3 billion over budget.

But it gets worse. My SaportaReport colleague and friend Tom Baxter recently reported that Toshiba-Westinghouse, the construction company working on the Plant Vogtle expansion, is on the verge of bankruptcy. If that happens, Georgia electricity customers may have to dig even deeper to pay for this mess.

Stan Wise, Chairman of the Georgia Public Service Commission

Stan Wise, Chairman of the Georgia Public Service Commission (Courtesy AJC)

For now, Stan Wise, Chairman of the PSC, is claiming everything will be hunky-dory at Plant Vogtle. Someday.

“The Plant Vogtle project continues to make progress despite well-publicized setbacks,” Wise stated in a PSC press release issued in February. “I believe that in the long run this project, when completed, will provide reliable, stable and carbon free electricity for many generations of Georgians.”

But Wise may be whistling past a nuclear graveyard. A bracingly similar situation with a nuclear power facility being built by Toshiba-Westinghouse in South Carolina, where utility customers were charged up front, is also in deep trouble.

Obviously, this is a major story but you wouldn’t know it from the glaring lack of coverage. Kudos to metro area journalists including Matt Kempner and Russell Grantham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who have been giving this issue the attention it rightly deserves.

But the Plant Vogtle mess has been largely ignored by other local newspapers and most Atlanta-area TV stations. Maybe they can’t afford to get crosswise with Georgia Power and its parent company, Southern Company, major advertisers with extremely deep pockets. Or maybe they’re just too busy covering “breaking news” of the latest live apartment fire to take notice.

Whatever their reasons, the magnitude and importance of this story illustrates the shameful lack of courage and journalistic integrity that has earned the media an even lower public approval rating than our feckless Congress and the dangerous cray-crays in the Trump administration.

Fearless, solid, trustworthy reliable journalism still matters, and it always will. Granted, in an era of fake news, celebrity puffery and fact-free reporting, it may be too late for our media outlets to ever regain the public’s trust.

But if our local newspapers and TV stations ever choose to do so, the Plant Vogtle story unfolding right here in our own backyard would be a great place to start.

12 replies
  1. Burroughston Broch says:

    The Toshiba situation at Plant Vogtle was widely covered by the AJC locally and by the national media. It is a developing problem, not a disaster that just occurred.Report

    Reply
  2. Lyle Harris
    Lyle Harris says:

    Thanks, BB! I’m glad we finally agree on something. As I wrote, the AJC has indeed covered this “situation.” My column praised the paper for good reporting while also pointing out that:
    a)local media is missing out on a national story and
    b)this indefensible ripoff — or “problem” — didn’t just happen yesterday. It started on Day 1.
    Best!Report

    Reply
    • Burroughston Broch says:

      @ Lyle Harris
      I don’t agree with you and think this story has been adequately covered. I believe the journalistic term is “it ain’t got legs.”
      I am pleased you finally posted an article not promoting legalization of marijuana.Report

      Reply
      • Lyle Harris
        Lyle Harris says:

        If you’re going to start lobbing “journalistic” terms, maybe you should research them first. When REAL journalists (not the fake-y kind) say a story “ain’t got no legs,” we mean it’s a mere one-off with no long-term impact. The fact that only a handful of journalists are still writing about this issue eight years later suggests your knowledge about journalism rivals your dubious understanding of how time works. I don’t know what dictionary you’re using but I can’t wait to hear how you define “adequately,” especially since this story has received virtually no coverage from local TV news outlets during that period. Cheers!

        (BTW: More cannabis articles coming to a SaportaReport near you!)Report

        Reply
        • Burroughston Broch says:

          You keep trying to drum up interest and outrage on this subject with little success. It’s not the potential impact of the story that qualifies whether it has legs, it’s how long the story stays in the public’s mind. And this story ain’t got legs.
          To check, I asked my siblings, both of whom are UGA Grady School of Journalism alumni from the early 1970s and have had long journalistic careers. They both say your story ain’t got legs.
          Regarding your cannabis focus, be prepared for questions regarding documented negative effects of use on the brain and other organs.Report

          Reply
  3. David Kyler says:

    This latest revelation in a series of corporate scams that profit by getting the public to pay the tab is deeply troubling and yet all too common. These exploitative, opportunistic practices thrive on the suppression and distortion of media coverage – and a resulting unwary public – enabling well-heeled speculators to win political support for their unethical schemes.

    This Vogtle example is undoubtedly disturbing and of special relevance to Georgia consumers and taxpayers. But Georgians need to understand that exploitation of the public and our environment in the guise of “economic development” and “job creation” is a long-established, chronic problem that is getting worse.

    By ignoring or marginalizing the health, financial, and environmental harms done by industries such as fossil fuels, chemical production, and nuclear power, as a state and nation we now face colossal challenges that are made worse by willfully negligent governmental policies. These impacts range from respiratory disease and cancer to contaminated water supplies, drought, and rising sea-level.

    We must demand more accountability by officials who are legally obligated to make permitting and policy decisions that are in the public interest.Report

    Reply
      • Dunwoody Dad says:

        Yes, it is true that eventually all costs businesses incur are passed on to customers; however, this isn’t just any business. Southern Company has been granted a near-monopoly by the state. It could be argued that this for large-scale power generation that’s the only economic model that makes sense. What makes that scenario work is the existence of a countervailing power to the licensee – in this case this the PSC. Ideally, the PSC should be working for the public good (ie, making sure that the monopoly doesn’t gouge ratepayers) but in this case, and in pretty much every other case in recent memory for the PSC, they have never said “no” to Georgia Power. Specifically, they have surrendered the power of the purse effectively saying to SoCo – “We’ll not only pay your bills, we’ll let you charge whatever you want up-front.” There is zero incentive for them to think long-term in this project or expend any effort at all to rein in costs. In fact quite the opposite – since they get to increase their rates based on cost projections they have every incentive to NOT manage costs. While that may not be a “scam”, per se, I’d argue the difference is academic.Report

        Reply
  4. Burroughston Broch says:

    I am no fan of Georgia Power and have testified against them at the PSC. They are one of a number of regulated monopolies.

    They are allowed to charge a % markup on their costs, so it is in their interest that the cost be as high as the PSC permits. But consider this: if the ratepayers are paying construction costs as the project is built, the financing charge component of the cost is lower. So pay as you go should be cheaper for the ratepayers, provided the PSC does its job.Report

    Reply
  5. Louis Zeller says:

    The Plant Vogtle expansion is predicated on a series of fundamental problems including the one you outline so well. The Westinghouse reactor design is experimental and in an attempt to reduce costs incorporates an internal flaw which would allow radiation to be funneled directly to the atmosphere. The license was issued in 2012 in a way to get it just under the wire of post-Fukushima requirements. Recently, a license amendment allows the company to substitute guesswork for analysis in the placement of critical devices inside the reactor building which are supposed to prevent hydrogen explosions. A Shoreham Solution would spare Georgia Power ratepayers and the general public the next financial and actual meltdowns.Report

    Reply

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